Power of food

30 November 2011
David Cameron-Smith
David Cameron-Smith

Popeye is an extreme example of “you are what you eat” as he downs a tin of spinach and gets a muscle-bulging burst of superhuman strength.

Certain foods have long been known for their health-giving properties but where do the nutrients go in the body and what do they do?

These are the questions that David Cameron-Smith, the University of Auckland’s new Professor of Nutrition, is exploring.

“I describe my research as nutrition on the inside,” he says. “We feed people different meals and different nutrients and then take samples of fat and muscle to study the way fat and protein, in particular, enhance health.”

David is focusing on the nutritional issues of an ageing population and he has already carried out studies looking at the benefit of giving protein supplements to older men a after strenuous exercise. “There is a lot of synergy when exercise and protein are combined,” he says. “Exercise promotes muscle growth through one mechanism and the amino acids in protein supplements work via a different and complementary pathway.”

Consumers are demanding more from their food these days. As well as eating to fuel their bodies they want food products that boost their health, manage their weight and improve their immune system. David believes New Zealand can become a leader in developing these clinically proven “functional foods”.

His work is part of the University’s new trans-disciplinary Food and Health Programme which draws on experts in food science, process engineering, nutrition, health, social sciences and business across the campus to help companies such as Zespri, Fonterra and Comvita.

“One of the main goals of the Food and Health Programme is to boost innovation and growth in the New Zealand food and beverage sector,” says Dean of Science, Professor Grant Guilford. “We work directly with companies to tackle problems as well as make discoveries that will help with diet-related health issues in different communities.”

A long-standing collaboration between engineers and chemists aims to develop food products that not only taste good but also have a pleasing texture. “We want to learn how to alter the structure of solid foods so that they feel good when chewed,” says chemical and materials engineer Dr Bryony James, who is working with food scientist Dr Bronwen Smith, Plant & Food Research and Massey University to investigate the microstructure of food.

“We’re looking at the mechanical properties of food from the first bite through to swallowing. This research would be impossible within only one discipline – it requires engineers to measure material properties, sensory scientists to evaluate mouth-feel and experts in chewing behaviour.”

In another project University scientists are screening fresh and processed mushrooms for novel bioactive molecules that may be used in the treatment of cancer. "At this stage our focus is on the medical implications of any novel compounds that we find," says molecular biologist Geoff Krissansen who is collaborating with Food Scientists. "But there’s also a potential commercial benefit for local growers, if compounds from native mushrooms are found to have anticancer activity."

The Food and Health Programme builds on collaboration and relationships between University researchers, companies and the health sector developed over many years, says Grant Guilford. “As a result, we’re on track to deliver substantial benefits for public health and the New Zealand economy.”

www.foodandhealth.auckland.ac.nz